Diversity is not a religion - is it? | Deloitte Netherlands


Diversity is not a religion – is it?

Promoting diversity and inclusion means having candid conversations

If you find yourself having discussions about the use of diversity policies in your company, you’re not the only one. Many employees are sceptical about the relevance of targets, or the importance of trainings to promote inclusion. To be truly inclusive, their voices should be heard.

Few topics in the modern workplace have such a bad reputation as diversity, equity & inclusion. While many companies have a vivid DEI-policy in place and more and more leaders publicly advocate for it, the debate around equity in the workplace is a tired one. Employees complain that it has gone too far, that white men are left out of the equation in favor of political correctness, or that DEI-initiatives are a waste of their time.

Diversity fatigue is a common feature among many involved, and shouldn’t be underestimated. It causes frustration, distress and irritation and thus risks acting as a self-fulfilling prophecy: without the intrinsic motivation and engagement of all employees, initiatives designed to promote diversity and inclusion cán prove useless, and even cause backlash against underrepresented groups.

DEI-arguments are not set in stone

One of the common reactions to this diversity fatigue is negation. No, diversity has not gone too far, how can you say that, look at the numbers. No, white men are not left out of the equation, it’s still about the best person for the job. Or any other retort to the arguments moved forward by the sceptics. No, diversity is not an HR-issue, because it’s not only about hiring and promoting, but about having a truly inclusive culture which should be driven from the top. No, DEI-initiatives are not a waste of your time, because your company will flourish from having a diverse workforce, and in the long run the opposite will be true too. No, diversity is not only about women and race, it’s actually about everyone, including you. Because diversity is not only about visible differences, it’s also and mostly about invisible differences that, by the way, define us most. Our beliefs, our social background, our thinking styles, our personal preferences, our caring responsibilities. Having an inclusive culture means having a workplace where everyone can be their authentic selves. No, DEI is not a religion, it’s not dogmatic… is it?

Well, to be honest, if dogmatic means there’s only room for one truth, this type of reaction very much looks like it. Of course, most given replies are valid, considering they are rooted in data and science. So you could say they are facts. But just like many facts, even the scientific ones, they are not set in stone. A company will not necessarily flourish from having a diverse workforce. That depends on variables like culture, but also the character of the work that needs to be done. Some research suggest that it might be useful to have a heterogeneous team when you're up for intellectually challenging tasks, but you'd better have a homogeneous team when the task needs to be done swiftly and smoothly without much thinking. If you're a soldier on a mission in Afghanistan and your platoon gets caught in an ambush, you don't necessarily benefit from having a diverse team with different perspectives analyzing the situation – you just need to act as one and fast. There is also a growing body of research suggesting that women are not any different from men. With many studies claiming just the opposite, it's safe to say that if anything, it's not a given that women bring diversity. They may bring a different perspective, because they have a different position in society. And they may alter the atmosphere, considering 'locker room talk' is off the table as soon as a woman joins. But this might not always be true nor necessary.

About emotions

All this is not to say that diversity and inclusion aren't important. It is to say that for some, they aren't. And if you're talking about having a workplace where everybody can be their authentic selves, it means they too should have a voice that's heard. How can you do that without having your diversity training turn into flame-wars?

First of all by realizing diversity, equity and inclusion are not solely about facts. We may resort to economic reasoning to call for equality, we may use neuroscience to explain biases and microaggressions, we may look at data to expose inequities, but in the end, DEI is about emotions. About feelings of exclusion, and feelings of defensiveness because nobody intentionally wants to exclude. About feelings of moral injustice, and feelings of incomprehension because the privileged truly don't see their own privileges. About being human, and feeling intuitively attracted by people who are like you, and naturally inclined to adhere to social norms in order to fit in. We can back up all these emotions with science, and build a convincing business case of DEI based on reason, but this covers just one-third of the answer. The other two-thirds are far less straightforward and more diffuse, complex, ambivalent, because they have to deal with the messy nature of human beings, brains that are wired to be biased and societal systems that keep our biases firmly in place. Hence the resistance DEI often evokes; most people don't feel comfortable with ambiguity.

So secondly, you make use of this insight by having open dialogues. Before you even think of organizing diversity trainings, have candid conversations first to see what lives among your employees, how they see diversity and how included they feel themselves. And candid is not a hollow term: it actually means you make space for all arguments, also the ones that challenge consensus. But instead of refuting these with logic, just let them be. Thank your people for being honest and bringing valuable perspectives to the table. And try to see what's beneath them. All behavior stems from emotions. What emotions underlie the sceptic attitudes? Fear of losing out, maybe, or fear of having to let go of securities and convictions? This may sounds a little bit fuzzy for corporate environments, and let's not turn the dialogue into therapeutic sessions, but it actually makes sense to pay attention to feelings your employees might have regarding DEI - especially if these employees hold positions of leadership within your organization and therefore cast a long shadow on your culture. If you want them to have empathy with others, you first have to have empathy with them. And if you want people to have the courage to challenge the status quo, you have to empower them first.

Embrace all differences

You may discover that they too don't feel like they belong in your organization. Or that they didn't feel like that when they started, and have sacrificed a lot in order to fit in. And that it feels now that others just get a free ride to the top, and that they are not promoted because women are being favored now. Imagine your employees secretly having these kind of feelings, and you come up with mandatory diversity training and targets for women. Knowing these feelings enables you to come up with the right answers, for instance that they didn't get that promotion not because it had to be a woman, but because they just weren't suitable. Not knowing these feelings, will end up in a battle, where nobody wins.

Creating a diverse, inclusive workforce doesn't need to be a battle. With the right understanding of how human beings and brains work and a compassionate approach of emotions, it can be an evolution that's not about winning or losing, but about enriching and growing. The key is to actually embrace all differences, including the difference in opinions. Even if the sceptics remain sceptic, you can alleviate resistance by acknowledging them and having an answer to their fear. This answer may not be the one they want to hear, but it is the answer they need to hear. Then it's up to them to take their responsibility of being a leader within your organization, and up to you to create clear leadership standards that are aligned with your DEI-goals.

If you're looking for an effective way to build your DEI-strategy, or if you have a DEI-strategy but are not making any progress, it may be useful to shift your focus from the underrepresented groups to the dominant group. It may also be good to broaden the narrative by making it about social skills too, like empathy and psychological safety, and give your leaders the tools to be inclusive leaders. And of course, it's strongly advised to debias your processes and systems so that biases have less chance of influencing decisions. We would be happy to help you with all that.

Please feel free to reach out to one of our DEI-experts for more information.

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